the Language of Flowers

64 Arts

Flowers are the window dressing of the world. They pop up everywhere whether we plant them or not–even cacti have blossoms! Some are such masters of disguise that we don’t notice weeds for what they are, sporting pretty puffy balls or delicate petals. In art and literature, both secular and religious, flowers have represented everything from innocence and the divine to eroticism and death.

It’s no surprise, then, that in the 1800s, a specific language of flowers was developed for purposes of romance and coded messages between sometimes-clandestine lovers. Take for instance

  • Red Amaryllis–I respect you from the depths of my soul.
  • Field Clover–Let me know when I can see you again.
  • White Hyacinth–My heart draws me to you, pale dreamer.
  • Marigold–As eternal as the golden ring of this flower, is the purity of my love.

and, of course

  • Red Rose–This is the pledge of love and fidelity.

Not all flowers had happy meanings, of course. Some were merely signs of friendship and others, well…

  • Garlic Blossom–What I feel for you is the utmost indifference.
  • Oleander–In you jealousy and pomp reign, for nature gave you not a warm, feeling heart but only outer beauty.
  • Poppy–Your sleepy, phlegmatic temperament will let no more meaningful emotions emerge from your heart.
  • Snapdragon–Your wanton mischief will be avenged upon you bitterly.
  • Peony–Your pride is unbearable.

Just like any other form of cryptography, though, both sides had to have the same key for things to work correctly and there were (and still are) many different interpretations of the flowers. Where one might list Lavender as meaning “The memory of you is my only quiet joy” another is quoted as “Your speech is puzzling.” By that same vein a girl with one book might receive a Lilac (“Let us hurry to the altar, before our youth has passed”) and interpret an elopement in her future when her beau merely meant to pay her a compliment (“In your every look and word speaks the beauty of your soul”).

And then there are men who have their own languages entirely–flowers being only a small part!

I remember my first husband would send me these gargantuan bouquets positively dripping with tiger lilies that, to tell the truth, stunk up my office to high heaven. To him, the price tag was the most important thing, disregarding the fact that I’m more of a trio of roses kind of girl. One boyfriend was a rose-giver, including a very special rose that said “will you marry me” (or, well, it was actually the diamond ring tucked inside the rose that said that, but you know what I mean.

But then there were the guys who just would NOT give a girl flowers as a general rule. Another boyfriend saw giving flowers as “too big of a commitment” and I only got 2 carnations from him very late into our year-plus relationship. My second husband, on the other hand, gave me some song-and-dance early on about how he took an Eastern approach to flowers and preferred to leave them in nature where everyone could enjoy them. Hmm. He gave me a spider plant for my office, once, and sat a daylily from the backyard in a drinking glass once during the 3 years we were married. The spider plant, by the way? Died. Quickly. Not exactly very zen after all, huh?

Bottom line? Know the code. I’m sure those flower guides of the Victorian Age made things interesting (and certainly heightened the drama amidst the sedate pace of love in those years), it’s best to be straightforward with your meaning. After all, that’s what the card is for!

[All flower meanings in this post came from Hans Biedermann’s Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them.]